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Monday, October 25, 2021

The 5 Types of Lines We Use to Craft Stories (and How to Use Them to Reveal Character)

Recently I was listening to a lecture from #1 New York Times best-selling author Brandon Sanderson where he listed four different kinds of lines we use to write stories--and while I knew each type existed, I had never really thought of listing them out and talking about them, and as I considered that, I also thought of another type he didn't mention. 

When it comes to actually writing a story (on a line-by-line level), you really only have five elements to do that with. And one of the differences between a beginning writer and a professional-level writer, is that a professional-level writer will convey more than what the lines are saying on the page--they'll convey more than the text itself. In contrast, a beginning writer often uses more words than necessary to convey concepts that the audience already understands. So while a professional writer tends to write text jam-packed with meaning, a beginning writer tends to write long-winded text with little meaning.

As an example of how to bring more meaning to text, I'm going to cover how each type of line can be used to reveal character (in part because this is what Sanderson does in his lecture). Beginning writers tend to write whole passages of introspection in the opening where nothing really happens--usually in an effort to convey character. But in reality, every kind of line can be used to reveal character nearly all the time. You don't have to bring the story to a grinding halt to do it--as long as you know how to do it. 

So let's go through the five types of lines we have in our arsenal. 


Dialogue is speech between two or more characters, and it's set off by quotation marks. 

Experienced writers know that often what is not said, and the way it's not, conveys just as much, if not more than what the dialogue says itself. This is often where subtext happens. Furthermore, the more intense the feelings a character experiences, the more likely they are to speak indirectly about them--usually. 

Dialogue is also used to convey most characters' voices. Voice is what the character talks about and how the character talks about it. 

What the character talks about + How she talks about it = Voice

It's worth pointing out that what a character talks about conveys what the character is thinking about. 

For example, in Lord of the Rings, Hobbits often talk about food, because that is what they are thinking about, because they eat more food than most people. They also talk differently than most people.

Dialogue can be used to convey what a relationship is like, and deliver information to the audience.

In short, it can be used to convey more than just what is said. 

Here's an example of dialogue that conveys what's not said, by touching on strong feelings indirectly (creating subtext); that conveys character voice; and that conveys a relationship.

"I wonder if we'll ever be put into songs or tales," Sam said.

Frodo turned. "What?" 

"I wonder if people will ever say, 'Let's hear about Frodo and the Ring.' And they'll say 'Yes, that's one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn't he, Dad?' 'Yes, my boy, the most famousest of Hobbits. And that's saying a lot.'"

Frodo continued walking. "You've left out one of the chief characters--Samwise the Brave. I want to hear more about Sam." He turned to Sam. "Frodo wouldn't have got far without Sam."

"Now Mr. Frodo, you shouldn't make fun; I was being serious."

"So was I."

You can learn more about dialogue in my Writing Tip Index (there is certainly more than what I can cover in here). 


Description is used to convey the concrete world to the audience. Usually this relates to setting, but characters also get described. Imagery is text that appeals to the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Some people add additional senses--like a sense of time and space. 

As human beings, we rely on our sense of sight a lot, and that is often what writers use the most--they'll describe what the street looks like or what a character is wearing. But unlike film or video games, short stories and novels allow more opportunities to appeal to touch, smell, and taste. It's easier for us to describe texture and temperature, for example. 

Imagery is important in immersing the audience into the story, so they feel like they are there, experiencing what the character is experiencing. In many writing classes, imagery is one of the first things writers are taught. This is because beginning writers often write in abstract ways, and description forces the abstract into something concrete, which is more meaningful to the reader. 

But description can do more than simply convey the concrete world. Sometimes it can be used to convey a sense of history about the setting or even worldbuilding. It can almost always convey something about a character. As writers, we should strive to pick the details that convey more information than themselves--we want to pick the right details. For example, a character who is wearing a shirt that has grease stains tells us more about that person than a character in a plain white shirt. 

In most stories, the narration is in the viewpoint of a character (most often the protagonist). This means that what is described and how conveys how the viewpoint character views the world. For example, a dentist may notice and describe people's teeth more than another character. And if the story were written from a Hobbit's point of view, they may use food for metaphors more than most characters. Of course, there are some cases where the narration zooms out from the viewpoint during descriptions, but generally speaking, much of the time, the way something is described will convey the viewpoint character.

Beginning writers often write descriptions that feel static and stagnant. This can be overcome by creating a sense of change or motion in the way the description is written

Below is an example of description from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which is told from the point of view of Death. 

The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness. 

Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages. When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast. 

Then, bombs. . . .

Within minutes, mounds of concrete and earth were stacked and piled. The streets were ruptured veins. Blood streamed till it was dried on the road, and the bodies were stuck there, like driftwood after a flood. 

They were glued down, every last one of them. A packet of souls. . . .

Yes, the sky was now a devastating home-cooked red.

Blocking (AKA "Action" or "Beat")

The term "blocking" is borrowed from play performances. Blocking is just about anything an actor does that isn't dialogue: where they stand, where they look, how they interact with the setting, how they move across the stage, how close they are to what, how they interact with props. 

In short stories and novels, this is a line that conveys action. It's also called a "beat." However, I usually avoid that term because "beat" is an ambiguous term that can mean different things in different contexts in the writing world.

The actions a character takes will often convey something about that character and his current state. For example, in a conversation, as an argument gets more intense, a character may invade the other's personal space. If one character suddenly says something that makes the other uncomfortable, the latter may take a step back. If one character is vulnerable, whether the second draws closer or steps away can convey a lot.

Of course, you can use setting and props to do the same thing. As an argument gets intense, one character throws something at the other. If someone is uncomfortable, she might put something (an island, a couch, a car, a teeter-totter) between them. If she's feeling vulnerable, she might "hide" or "block" herself by getting a blanket, picking up a book to look at, or turning away from the speaker to pretend interest in a rose bush.

Even in a scene where blocking is the primary focus (building an invention, competing in America Ninja Warrior, forging a sword, hunting), how the character interacts with the setting and objects can convey more than itself--how tightly he holds a screwdriver, how sweaty her hands are against a climbing wall, the way he beats the metal, how many shots she shoots.

Some characters take repeated actions, and that conveys something too. In BBC's Sherlock, the fact that Sherlock stabs the mantle whenever he gets frustrated is something specific to him. It helps establish who he is. And actually, that fact becomes specifically important in season four--when we understand that he, someone who is supposedly not driven by emotion, sometimes manifests more raw emotion than anyone else.

You can learn more about blocking in my article about it here.

Here is an example of blocking from Brisingr by Christopher Paolini.

Taking the pieces of hard and soft brightsteel she had decided to use, Rhunon placed them into the forge. At the elf's request, Saphira heated the steel, opening her jaws only a fraction of an inch so that the blue and white flames that poured from her mouth remained focused in a narrow stream and did not spill over into the rest of the workshop. . . . 

Rhunon had Eragon remove the brightsteel from the torrent of flames with a pair of tongs once the metal began to glow a cherry red. She laid it on her anvil and, with a series of quick blows from a sledgehammer, flattened the lumps of metal into plates that were no more than a quarter of an inch thick. . . . As she finished with each plate, Rhunon dropped it into a nearby trough of brine. 


Like Sanderson, I've waited to cover introspection until now because beginning writers often overuse it, which has led some in the writing world to regularly tell others to rarely use it. 

Nothing can quite kill a story's pacing like a big hunk of introspection, except, of course, its cousin, the info-dump. The reason for this is that the more time we spend reading a character's thoughts, the less immediacy the story has, which means the less the audience cares about it. Often beginning writers put in whole paragraphs or even pages of introspection in addition to info-dumps--killing the pacing and readers' interests even more. Some writing instructors will tell you that you shouldn't spend more than 20% of the novel in a character's thoughts. But yet in some successful stories, this rule is completely disregarded.

Introspection as a tool isn't a problem, and it's one of the most obvious ways to convey character. Few things are more personal than private thoughts. But as I stated in the opening, beginning writers tend to write a lot of introspection that conveys very little. Instead, we want the writing to be more condensed, with nearly any introspection conveying more than what's on the page. With introspection, usually less is more. 

Most beginning writers will use introspection to address the past. In reality, introspection is usually most effective when the character is thinking about the future--which hasn't happened yet. Have your character think about what he fears or hopes could happen. This helps draw the audience in, because they'll then want to see if what could happen actually does happen.

Introspection is basically internal dialogue/monologue, which means it's another opportunity to convey the viewpoint character's voice. Because . . . 

What the character thinks about +  How he thinks about it = Voice (again)

How thoughts are actually handled on the page will depend on what's called point of view penetration--how deep the text goes into the character's head. In third person, direct thoughts may be set off in italics (or underlined if italics isn't available). But in third person or first person, the text itself may take on the thoughts and attitudes of the character, in which case, there are no italics (or underlining). 

You can learn more about writing introspection in my articles, "How to Write Excellent Introspection" and "Breaking Writing Rules Right: 'Never Open with Introspection.'"

Here is a passage of introspection from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling. Notice how the passage includes anticipating the future and also conveys character.

Harry wished his scar would burn and show him Voldemort's thoughts, because for the first time ever, he and Voldemort were united in wanting the very same thing. . . . Hermione would not like that idea, of course . . . . But then, she did not believe . . . Xenophilius had been right, in a way . . . Limited. Narrow. Close-minded. The truth was that she was scared of the idea, especially the Resurrection Stone . . .

It was nearly dawn when he remembered Luna, alone in a cell in Azkaban. . . . If only there was a way of getting a better wand. . . . And the desire for the Elder Wand, the Deathstick, the unbeatable, invincible, swallowed him once more . . .

It was as though a flame had been lit inside him that nothing, not Hermione's flat disbelief nor Ron's persistent doubts, could extinguish. . . . Harry's belief and longing for the Hallows consumed him so much that he felt quite isolated from the other two and their obsession with the Horcruxes.

"Obsession?" said Hermione . . . when Harry was careless enough to use the word one evening . . . "We're not the ones with an obsession, Harry!"


This is the fifth type of line I would add to the list, because sometimes there are lines that are neither dialogue, description, blocking, nor introspection, but simply summary. 

Summary condenses time, explains through telling, tends to be more abstract, and may swiftly change characters and setting. In fact, it may not even mention a specific character or setting. 

Use summary when the audience needs to know the fact that something happened, but it's not important for them to experience it. Also use summary when you need to cover a broader length of time in a shorter amount of space. Summary can be great for scene transitions--usually when what happened between the scenes is worth mentioning, but not worth dramatizing. 

It's also important in providing context for the reader, so it may be used to set up a situation or to provide additional background information. For example, you may summarize a short backstory to explain a character's current behavior.

For most stories, summary is usually best kept to a minimum because it is closely related to telling (as opposed to showing). However, a story with no summary will more often than not have problems. 

Like description and introspection, what and how the viewpoint character summarizes may reveal more about him or her. With that said, however, summary is probably more likely to be plain and straightforward than the other line types.

You can learn more about summary in my article, "Scene vs. Summary: When to Use Which."

Here is an example of summary from Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

Mother came home and commiserated with Ender about the monitor. Father came home and kept saying it was such a wonderful surprise, they had such fantastic children that the government told them to have three, and now the government didn't want to take any of them after all, so here they were with three, they still had a Third . . . until Ender wanted to scream at him, I know I'm a Third, I know it, if you want I'll go away so you don't have to be embarrassed in front of everybody.

Mixing the Types

While you may have passages that are pure dialogue, pure description, pure blocking, pure introspection, or pure summary, most of the time, you'll probably be writing lines of all types within a  given segment.

For example, in my excerpt from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you may have noticed that introspection, summary, and dialogue were all used. 

Here is an example that uses all five types of lines from Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. 

She still found longer hair an annoyance, however. She washed it, combing out the tangles and knots, wondering how the court women could stand hair that went all the way down their backs. How long must they spend combing and primping beneath a servant's care? Vin's hair hadn't even reached her shoulders yet, and she was loath to let it get longer. It would fly about and whip her face when she jumped, not to mention provide her foes with something to grab on to.

Once finished bathing, she returned to her room, dressed in something practical, and made her way downstairs. Apprentices bustled in the workroom and housekeepers worked upstairs, but the kitchen was quiet. Clubs, Dockson, Ham, and Breeze sat at the morning meal. They looked up as Vin entered. 

"What?" Vin asked grumpily, pausing in the doorway. The bath had soothed her headache somewhat, but it still pulsed slightly in the back of her head. 

The four men exchanged glances. Ham spoke first. "We were just discussing the status of the plan, now that both our employer and our army are gone."

Breeze raised an eyebrow. "Status? That's an interesting way of putting it, Hammond. I would have said 'unfeasibility' instead."

Clubs grunted his assent, and the four turned to her, apparently waiting to see her reaction.

Why do they care so much what I think? she thought, walking into the room and taking a chair.


Recently a new thesaurus was released from Writers Helping Writers! The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman. To celebrate, they have put together something called "The Conflict Challenge" (cue dramatic music). This is an event where the reader gets to be the protagonist in a story Becca and Angela have written to see how well they navigate conflict. It's set up like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, where you make choices and get closer to the goal...or you die.

If you survive, you win access to some cool, new writerly resources.

As some of you know, I coach on Writers Helping Writers several times a year, and I love their thesauri collection--sooo helpful! Definitely check out the new book and the challenge. 

Oh, and do have a fun Halloween this week 😉


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